How Trump Might Help Revitalize the NFL Brand

Forget the art of the deal. The art of distraction is what our president does best. After yet another week that exposes his inability to govern, what else is there to do but start a new fake controversy? But Trump may have met his match when he decided to take on the NFL.

The league has taken its lumps in recent years. Ratings are down. Star players have been convicted of murder, assault, and other heinous crimes. Some captured on video. The NFL has also been sharply criticized for burying evidence that a lifetime of head banging has caused players to suffer – and die from – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Some took their own lives.

Sensitive and nuanced as always, Trump took the opportunity at a Huntsville, Alabama rally for Republican Senate primary candidate Luther Strange (who ultimately lost) to, tell us that the problem with the NFL is too little violence.

“Today, if you hit too hard—fifteen yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, fifteen yards! They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what (the players) want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”

Far worse was Trump’s take on yet another NFL controversy, one started over a year ago by (then) San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he chose to take a knee during the National Anthem. Kaepernick explained his actions as follows:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Other players joined Kaepernick in this protest, which has carried over the current NFL season. A divider, not a uniter, Trump called these players “sons of bitches” and demanded that they be fired on the spot for kneeling. Moreover, he suggested that fans should exit the stadium immediately when players kneel, and that if the practice were to continue, that Americans should boycott the NFL.

Trump was successful in rallying a good deal of his base and more. A YouGov/HuffPost poll shows that while 38% of Americans understand that the protests are directed at police violence or Trump and not the flag, only 36 percent consider the kneeling protest to be “appropriate.” Among Republicans, nine of ten feel that such a protest is not appropriate.

Given the emotion attached to the flag and the anthem, this is entirely understandable. Most of us grew up reciting the pledge of allegiance and singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” every day at school. Moreover, no major sporting event can begin in this country without standing to sing the National Anthem.

But when was protest supposed to be comfortable? The Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution were not considered “appropriate” by the powers that be at the time. Nor were more recent acts of protest. Muhammed Ali’s refusal to go into the military, the Black Power salutes by John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics, the Vietnam War protests of the 60’s and early 70’s, Rosa Parks refusing to yield her seat, and even Dr. King’s March on Washington were considered radical. But as society evolved, these once “blasphemous” acts not only came to be accepted, they were considered patriotic.

Not all Americans agree that ignoring racial inequality, the real issue here, the one that moved Colin Kaepernick to kneel in the first place, is a problem. I conducted a political focus group recently in which a young conservative man, currently serving in the military and going to college, flatly denied any vestige of racism in America. The African American respondents rolled their eyes and suggested that this young man – a bright, articulate, likeable young man at that – should spend a day walking in their shoes. He was incredulous. “Don’t tell me that. You had problems in the past, but no longer. Everyone in American is free to embrace success. Opportunity does not discriminate.”

This is his truth. I don’t believe for a moment he is racist. He has served in Afghanistan, and I have no reason to doubt that he was completely color blind when he and the soldiers in his unit watched each other’s backs. It’s also very likely that he’s worked hard to pull himself up by the bootstraps, and reasons that if he can do it, everyone else, regardless of race, should be able to do so themselves.

He is exactly the type of American that needs to be jolted out of his naïve, ignorant, idealized view of the world, regardless of his seemingly good intentions.

Superficially, it was good to see NFL players, sponsors and owners pull together and stand up to the president. Trump supporters like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft stood in solidarity with their players. Jones went so far as to appear with his players before a Monday night game, linking arms and taking a knee himself, though before, not during the anthem.

Nice, perhaps sincere, but not nearly enough. The only thing that rich, white, mostly Republican team owners have in common with rich, mostly black, mostly Democratic players is wealth. Not to suggest that they are racist by any means, but it’s likely that big time Trump contributors like Kraft and Jones are likely to be far more concerned about lowering their taxes and easing federal regulations than promoting racial equality.

Yet there can be no doubt about the sincerity of the players. They have no financial or career incentives to kneel, and everything to lose. Kaepernick is Exhibit A. He’s a proven quarterback that many teams could use right now, but he’s essentially been blacklisted. The owners’ rationalization is that it could be “bad for business” to bring him in. Of course, as Spike Lee noted on a CNN Town Hall on this topic, business considerations didn’t stop Branch Rickey from hiring Jackie Robinson. Which, by the way, turned out to be good for business.

It’s also inspiring to watch interviews with players like Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin. There are totally convincing when they insist that they support the country, the flag and the military, and unambiguously avow that they mean no disrespect. Their stated goal is to leverage their short time in the spotlight to rouse people from their comfort zones, calling attention to longstanding injustices, the existence of which many Americans flatly deny or are content to sweep under the rug.

The one thing owners, advertisers and players can agree on is that the game must go on and the more viewers the better. No one benefits from a boycott. But will people really stop watching football? Is the NFL, in Trump’s eloquent terms, a “loser?”

I don’t think so. Ratings may be slipping but they’re still huge. Factor in all the other ways the NFL engages fans such as apps, fantasy leagues, merchandise and the like, it seems clear that pro football, quantitatively and qualitatively, is as powerful as it’s ever been. If people aren’t staying tuned in for entire games anymore, I would suggest that this has more to do with ever shortening attention spans than anything else.

Let’s put this in football terms. You’re still on a great team, but your defense is being challenged by some creative, unexpected playmaking from your opponent. At the same time, your usually potent offense is struggling to find its rhythm. You’ve moved the ball up the field, but now face a 4th and 1 at your own 40-yard line. The “smart” choice might be to punt it away, pin down the other team deep in their own territory, then count on your defense to come through and hope for better results on the next possession.

Or you could go for it.

Risky, but why not take destiny into your own hands? Why hope when you can act? And if you do go for it, what kind of play should you run? The safe choice would be a quarterback sneak or handoff to a bruising running back who would be more likely than not to plow through the defensive line for a first down.

But it you really wanted to make a statement, if you really wanted to demonstrate confidence and fearlessness, you’d run a play action and have the quarterback toss the ball in the direction of an end zone bound receiver.

That’s exactly what the NFL and its sponsors should be doing. Pick up the blitz (Trump’s distracting narrative) and go for it all with confidence. Nothing might help the NFL brand more.

I’ve worked in marketing my entire life and I teach branding at the graduate school level. But for the life of me, when I started to think about it, I couldn’t articulate what the NFL brand actually stands for. Buried in the “Careers” section of, I did find a mission statement:

“To provide our fans, communities and partners the highest quality sports and entertainment in the world, and to do so in a way that is consistent with our values.”

This is what I like to call a “your brand here” positioning statement. It could apply to almost anything. While sounding good it says nothing at all. However, looking further, I found that dedication to diversity is indeed one of the NFL’s core values:

“Diversity is the right thing to do both for moral and ethical reasons as well as for the long-term business success of the League. To speak effectively to the broad society externally, the NFL must represent and celebrate a broad society internally. We must overcome the existing cynicism by making progress in both the culture and composition of the NFL organization.

“To be effective in embracing and supporting diversity as an organization, every individual must take ownership of the diversity initiative and strive to make a difference in the culture and behaviors of the NFL while impacting workforce composition and advancement whenever possible, as described (in the Diversity Mission Statement).”

Clearly, diversity should be viewed as more than an internal H.R. issue, especially when a brand holds as much sway in our society as the NFL. The NFL and its sponsors can truly help change the world by publically advocating for the rights of its players and American people. And stand for something really big in the process. Here are a just few thought starters:

Establish The NFL Foundation for Equality and Social Change – Bring in business leaders, politicians, scholars and high profile celebrities to endow and manage this foundation. Establish live and online educational programs that can be used in schools, businesses and organizations across the country. Donate to a highly qualified organizations dedicated to social justice and the creation of educational and economic opportunity.

“Equality Month” – Leading up to the playoffs, the month of December – this December – should be declared Equality Month by the NFL. Players can where ribbons or armbands – perhaps black, white & brown colored braids – as an icon of racial unity.

In addition to running its own PSA’s featuring coaches and players talking about why equality is important to them, the league should encourage advertisers to incorporate the theme of equality into their ads as well.

Super Bowl Halftime Show

You can still have performers like Springsteen, Lady Gaga, The Stones and McCartney. Assemble a “We Are The World” type group of hit makers from across the musical spectrum and have them write an original song or two for the occasion. All song selection and choreography should be geared to Equality.

Tie-Ins with Popular Musicians

Every Sunday night, the NFL broadcast is introduced with a lively music video by country superstar Carrie Underwood. Popular musicians from all popular genres should be recruited by the NFL to make videos and live appearances with players in support of equality. Especially country music stars who will appeal to fans in red states. These, of course, could be the same musicians featured in the above mentioned halftime show.

Massive rallies should be held in all NFL cities and across the country to celebrate equality with players and celebrities making appearances.

Promotions and Donations – Sponsors should step up. Advertisers hawking athletic shoes, beer, soft drinks, cars, insurance and erectile dysfunction drugs should donate a percentage of sales the Foundation. A meaningful percentage, not a paltry $100K. These are billion dollar businesses. In addition, instead of spending over $3 million on that funny, unforgettable PR worthy Super Bowl Ad, why not, again, choose to stand for something much bigger. Buy that advertising time to impart a positive, meaningful message instead.


Special jerseys, t-shirts and other merchandise can all be designed and sold with profits going to the Foundation.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.

Will this be easy and free of controversy? Of course not. There will a backlash. We will hear, once again, from those who wonder why “black lives matter” but “white lives” don’t. Some will insist that football should stick to football. These are specious arguments.

People will be uncomfortable. Good. A highly visible effort like this will help us examine our personal values and think about our personal roles and responsibilities on issues of race.

History will be on the NFL’s side in the long-term. And it will be good for business. Consumers, particularly Millennials, select brands and base their loyalty on the social causes they stand for. A study by the Boston Consulting Group cited in Forbes is one of many stating that Millennials are more receptive to cause marketing than previous generations and are more likely to buy items associated with a cause. They also expect companies to support the social issues and causes they care about and will reward them if they do.

An NFL equality initiative would have short term benefits as well. It would eliminate the need for players to kneel in order to voice their protest. If their employer was committed to the cause in a highly visible, tangible way, they would have all the more reason to rise, put their hands on their hearts and sign the anthem. The home of the brave and land of the free, indeed.

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